Key Issues

in Opposition to Clean Air Laws, Second-hand Smoke

Ventilation and Designated Smoking Rooms (DSRs)


Ventilation as a solution to SHS in bars and restaurants is a propaganda brainchild of the tobacco industry, and is not based on public health protection. Ventilation is marketed as a way to “accommodate” both smokers and non-smokers, somehow meaning that SHS is nothing more than an irritant or nuisance. Can you think of another industry or workplace where employees and customers alike would be expected to show accommodation in the face of repeated and prolonged exposure to known human carcinogens?

The American Society of Heating, Refrigeration and Air-conditioning Engineers (ASHRAE), the world’s leading ventilation standard-setting organization, no longer even provides standards for air with tobacco smoke in it, only for smoke-free air. Since there is no known safe level of exposure to SHS, it is clear that the only type of acceptable ventilation would be one that completely eliminates SHS. At this time, no such ventilation exists.

The most common type of ventilation used is dilution ventilation, found in virtually all mechanically-ventilated buildings. SHS is diluted by mixing air with it via floor and ceiling jets. However, dilution is NOT the solution to pollution! The toxic chemicals found in SHS do not magically disappear, but are rather dispersed around the room. The sight and smell of SHS may be reduced, but this does not mean that the danger to human health is decreased. SHS particulates will settle onto surfaces and have a nasty habit of hanging around.

The American Federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) publishes “de minimis” or “acceptable risk” levels for federally regulated hazardous air pollutants. Health physicist and ventilation expert James Repace uses risk models for heart disease and lung cancer to assert that even under ideal dilution ventilation conditions, combined risk levels from SHS exposure are 15,000 to 25,000 times OSHA’s acceptable risk. Simply put, dilution ventilation is not a viable option to protect people’s health from SHS.

A newer but unproved technology has been heralded by the tobacco industry as the solution to accommodate smokers and non-smokers. Known as displacement ventilation , it has the potential, under ideal conditions, for up to 90% reductions in SHS levels relative to dilution technology. As Repace explains, displacement requires an air supply 5 to 10 degrees cooler than room temperature to be released at floor level, where it will travel horizontally across an open space. Warmer air, carrying contaminants, is moved to the ceiling area where it can be removed via return air grilles. This technology demands little disturbance to the air by moving objects (i.e. people) or draughts, which can be extremely difficult to achieve in real life conditions. However, as things currently stand, displacement ventilation is mostly just a theoretical construct.

Again, assuming ideal conditions, Repace has applied risk models for heart disease and lung cancer to this technology. Even with up to 90% reductions in SHS levels relative to dilution ventilation, combined risk levels for displacement technology is still between 1.5 to 2.5 per 1000 workers, or 1,500 to 2,500 times the “de minimis” level for federally regulated hazardous air pollutants. As Repace  states, “even a 90% reduction in ETS exposure yields massively unacceptable risk.”

However, until an acceptable level of exposure to SHS can be determined and agreed upon by reputable scientific bodies, the ventilation debate remains a moot point. The best method for achieving smoke-free air is to not allow smoking in the first place!

Designated Smoking Rooms (DSRs)

Designated Smoking Rooms (DSRs) are structurally separated areas equipped with negative pressure ventilation which ideally allows smoke to be evacuated directly to the outside of the building. There are both public health and practical problems associated with the allowance for DSRs in legislation and by-laws.

As discussed above, ventilation cannot protect people from the toxic ingredients of SHS. From a public health perspective, this fact is problematic. Hospitality servers may still be expected to enter DSRs to wait on customers, and cleaning staff are exposed to SHS particulates even when the room is unoccupied. Some legislation and by-laws attempt to address the serving staff issue, stating that an employee may choose to not enter a DSR, or should not spend more than X% of his/her shift inside a DSR. This sounds good on paper, but whether or not staff feel comfortable standing up for their rights remains to be seen.

With respect to the practical problems associated with DSRs, a host of issues arise. First and foremost, the allowance for DSRs immediately creates an unlevel playing field for hospitality establishments. Larger bars and restaurants, including chains, typically have the resources needed to install DSRs. This leaves smaller “mom and pop” businesses, which may not be able to afford such large-scale investments, at a competitive disadvantage. For those businesses that choose to invest, the expenses are significant. Proprietors typically need to hire a contractor, engineer and architect.  Proprietors don’t take kindly to city or town councils re-thinking the wisdom of DSRs just one or two years after a by-law has been passed.

DSRs also cost city and town councils money in terms of increased time and paperwork required to administer and coordinate the approval and monitoring of DSRs, as well as the need for technical skills, such as those held by engineers, on staff. Unfortunately, municipalities have found that not all businesses choose to pursue the legal route for building a DSR. Some proprietors have attempted to reduce their expenses by quietly erecting DSRs without the municipality’s knowledge or approval. These DSRs do not meet building codes and present legal and administrative headaches for city and town councils.

Once an establishment has built a DSR, a new set of challenges arises in terms of monitoring and surveillance. Experience has demonstrated that the amount of electricity required to maintain ventilation rates, or complaints of cold draughts from customers, has prompted some proprietors to switch off the ventilation. By-law enforcement officers can have a hard time issuing tickets, as ventilation systems can easily be switched back on as soon as it is known that an inspection is about to happen. Other practical problems include doors being propped open, DSRs being filled to over-capacity, and clogged or poorly maintained vents.

Given the science, there is not a single Canadian municipality left that allows for DSRs in enclosed public places. However, in certain situations where a workplace is also a person’s home, like long-term care facilities, some provinces allow for DSRs provided they meet stringent requirements.

For a more comprehensive look at the issues surrounding ventilation and designated smoking rooms:

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